Authors: Becky Johnson
Copyright © 2015 Becky Johnson
By Becky Johnson
Original and modified cover art by Kasia and CoverDesignStudio.com
Edited by: Leslie D. Stuart / Creative Director for Destiny Rose Editorial Reviews
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the author
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
All rights reserved.
To Mel, for all of the encouragement, support, texts, calls, e-mails, and uncompromising friendship. Also, for taking a stand of your own. Love you gir
This book would not have happened without the fantastic input of my beta readers Melanie Williams, Eva Vanrell, and Yolanda Ramos thank you so much for the encouragement, constructive criticism, and willingness to get out your red pen. Special thanks to Eva Vanrell for making sure I didn’t completely butcher the legal sections. Also, Dr. John Peterson and the Pharmacy Department at Lourdes Specialty Hospital thanks for helping me figure out the medical sections! Finally, my editor Leslie Stuart at Destiny Rose Editorial Reviews for keeping on eagle eye on my comma usage and always having great suggestions. Any and all mistakes are my own..
My own scream woke me.
Zero to sixty in less than a second. One second I was sound asleep, and the next I was bolt upright in bed with the sound of my scream still echoing across the bedroom. My heart thundered in my chest, and my panting breaths sounded loud in the silence. My shaking hands gripped the blanket in tight fists. Kitty looked up at me from her cozy spot at the end of the bed. Yellow eyes blinked. Then she meowed in sympathy and dropped her calico head back down onto her paws. She used to love sleeping curled right up against me. But my regular nightmares disrupted her. Unfortunately nightmares are not an uncommon occurrence. I have suffered from them ever since Lawrence Pheares.
Nine months ago I faced a monster, a murderer responsible for the deaths of twenty-three innocent girls. At night he haunts me. Sometimes the dreams are a reenactment of the events. I see Pheares choking me. Or I remember Jack and Pheares fighting. Sometimes the nightmares are filled with images of my lost girls. I watch helpless as Emily runs from a mad man. I cannot save her. The worst ones though, the dreams that make it impossible for me to go back to sleep, are the ones like the nightmare I just woke up from. They leave me with a jumble of images and tangled feelings. Nothing concrete that makes sense. When I wake up screaming, I am overwhelmed with terror. That’s the only feeling or sense I get from these dreams, bone deep fear.
According to my therapist I am suffering from PTSD. Simple letters for a life that is changed by trauma. Nine months ago I had lived the nightmare. It all began so simply. I was doing research for my next novel when I stumbled onto a serial killer and twenty-three girls who were abducted, raped, tortured, murdered, and then thrown away. When I found the killer, he found me. I almost didn’t survive. In the end I beat Lawrence Pheares, but in doing so I was forever changed.
Without conscious thought, my hand reached over to cover the E tattooed on the inside of my right arm, a daily reminder of what I had survived and a tribute to those innocent girls who did not.
In the months since I discovered evidence of a serial killer and my life became entwined with those lost girls who were heartlessly killed by a madman, I had become a different person, scared of my own shadow. At first it wasn’t so bad. I was still cruising on adrenaline. Now every day is a battle.
When I let myself really think about it, thoughts of Georgia frighten me the most. I never learned from Pheares what role she played in the killings, but I knew in my heart that she had one. Pheares was dead. But I knew Georgia was still out there. There was no evidence of this, but my gut told me different. I knew she was alive. I could feel her watching me.
I looked over at my bedside clock. It was four forty-three in the morning. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep. My body was slick with sweat and the hands I ran over my face shook. Max, my black Pit Bull mix, looked at me from his spot beside my bed. His ears were perked. Brown eyes focused on me. He looked ready to get up with me or go back to sleep, depending on my next move. These days Max rarely leaves my side. He is a good friend.
I swung my legs over and sat on the edge of the bed. A few deep breaths later my heart was no longer racing, and I was ready to get up.
I start every morning with yoga. It is one of my therapies. Sometimes I think if I don’t do the little things like yoga, running, and journaling, I will plunge into a well of terror that will dominate me. So every morning, no matter what, I make myself stick to my routine, as though that alone will save me. That morning my poses were a little shaky from my nightmare, but I made it through them. Mountain pose. Forward bend. Down dog. I could feel myself steadying. Warrior two. Down dog. Tree pose. I finished with two sun salutations then stood in mountain pose just breathing.
Max knows my new pattern. When my routine was finished he was ready to go. He leaned his big body against me and gave that look dog owners everywhere know –
I will admit I am afraid of becoming agoraphobic. It would be so easy. But I make myself go outside. If I didn’t, I think I could live a very content and safe life, never leaving the safety of my home. But that would mean that Pheares won. I can’t let him win. So, every day I force myself to venture outdoors. I stand outside and consider it a small victory in the midst of many battles. Max helps.
I grabbed Max’s leash from the hall closet and layered on warm winter gear. Coat, gloves, hat, boots. December in New Jersey is cold. It was so early that it was dark outside and very still. It had already been a rough icy winter. There were several inches of snow on the ground. I paused at my front door, Max waited patiently on his leash beside me. A few deep breaths, and I was able to convince myself to open the door.
My last home burned down, part of the drama I endured nine months ago with Pheares. He burned my home and destroyed everything I owned. He took so much from me, but at the end I was still standing. After a brief stay in a temporary condo, courtesy of my agent, my new home is comfortably located in a quiet development with lots of space between the houses and a big fenced backyard for Max. The small two story home has a nice open floor plan downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. It backs up to trees and a lake, so it is quiet.
It feels like too much quiet sometimes, but I like it.
The only nice thing about taking Max outside in the winter is that he is as happy to move quickly and get back inside as I am. He is not a fan of the cold. My breath left cold puffs of fog in the air and I shifted in place to stay warm. It was eerily quiet out, still too early for most of the world to be stirring. As I waited for Max to finish his business, headlights flashed over my front door. A car turned the corner onto my street. I tensed. As it rolled closer I recognized the logo of the security company hired to patrol my neighborhood. It was one of things that attracted me to this development. I was looking for a sense of security, wanting to feel safe. It hasn’t worked, but I gave the security car a wave as it slowly moved past my house. Looks like Carl. I had made a point to know every guard that patrolled. I know everyone who is a help or a possible threat in my fragile world.
Max finished his business, shivered from the chilly air, and whined to go back inside. We ran toward the door. After the cold the first wave of warmth was almost too much. I didn’t really relax until I heard the locks click. I was glad to be out of the cold and the dark. I always breathe a little easier when I am safely locked inside my home.
I striped off all the winter gear I had piled on and put them back in their respective places in the hall closet.
After a shower to wash away the sweat from my nightmare and yoga, and then a bowl of Cheerios, I felt almost ready to face the day.
I stood facing the mirror wearing a pair of yoga pants and a sports bra, my other daily ritual. I took stock of my body and its changes. Same long light blonde hair pulled back into a sensible ponytail, same dark blue eyes and overbite. The differences from nine months ago are obvious. I’ve lost over twenty-five pounds. Anything less than a hundred and twenty on my frame is too skinny. I was too skinny. The dark circles under my eyes were almost permanent. The biggest change though is my eyes. I used to be innocent, innocent to murder and cruelty. I’m not anymore. My eyes now are old. The changes were obvious. However, they were not all negative. I was strong. My arms had muscles they never had before. I was tough, inside and out. Looking at my reflection I repeated the same positive mantra I said every morning.
You are strong. You are a survivor.
Then I finished getting dressed and drove into Philly.
Joe’s Gym is a solid cement block building in South Philly. The neighborhood is primarily Italian and Catholic. Most of the businesses are family owned. The streets are wide with bike lanes, and the houses and businesses are clumped close together. Joe’s Gym blends in with the buildings on either side of it. The parking lot is tiny and located in the back. Joe’s is never really opened and never actually closed. Only members have keys. If you aren’t a member you will never get through the front door. I have no idea who Joe is. As far as I know Moshe owns the gym.
In the months following my confrontation with Lawrence Pheares I started coming to Joe’s gym with Jack, who introduced me to Moshe.
I parked Big Bertha, my black SUV, in the rear lot and used my key to enter. Nine months ago I practically lived in my SUV during the weeks I was on the run. I admit to being somewhat sentimental about her now.
The gym is one large open room with white walls. There is a boxing ring to one side with sparing mats behind it neighbored by a long row of punching bags, speed bags, and sparing dummies. There is one bulletin board that no one ever posts anything on and one locker room, as far as I know I am the only woman to ever venture inside that locker room. I went in once and the smell of sweaty male bodies and damp clothes was enough to send me right back out. After that Moshe let me use his bathroom behind his office. There are no shiny tread mills or fancy elliptical machines in Joe’s Gym. There are no motivational posters advising one to ‘hang in there’ with a cute cat clutching a tree branch.
When I walked inside, I was one of five people in the gym. Moshe and Skeet are always there working in one corner, and Jack was jumping rope on the opposite side. Jack. Seeing him gave me a pause. My heart clenched. The contents of my dream were a little too fresh to see someone who had starred in my latest nightmare.
“Charlotte.” Moshe said in greeting, always a man of few words. He always calls me Charlotte, never Char. It feels like a sign of respect and maybe a bit old fashioned. Moshe is a few inches taller than me, but is built like hardworking landscaper or a construction worker. He is not a big man, but he is solid and strong. His hair is a bush of dark waves that explode from his head with utter disregard for gravity. A heavy black mustache dominates his face, and low heavy brows make him appear angry, until you see his calm eyes. He is tough but gentle with me, and his eyes are always cautious and concerned. I have no idea how old Moshe is or where he is from. I guess he is in his mid-fifties, but I have never asked and he has never volunteered. His voice is significant for its utter lack of accent. As if he has trained himself to sound like he is from nowhere and anywhere, at the same time.
I walked toward Moshe, as I do four times a week. Although we have no formal agreement between us, he is my personal trainer. Skeet was next to him as usual. I know even less about Skeet than I do about Moshe. I don’t even know his real name. Everyone just calls him Skeet. The first time we met he made me incredibly uncomfortable. He rarely has any expression on his face. He never really talks. Occasionally, he grunts. Skeet’s age is hard to place, probably in his mid to late thirties. He is few inches taller than Moshe and wiry. Experience has taught me that he’s stronger than he looks. He is my most frequent sparring partner, and I like to think he’s also my friend. It’s hard to tell with Skeet, but his grunts seem friendly, and his face seems less blank around me now.
Skeet gave me a nod as I got close. That’s about as loquacious as he gets.
“What’s up today boss?” I asked Moshe when I joined their small group.
“You need to work on your defense from the ground.” Moshe is not one for small talk. For the last eight or so months Moshe has been training me in Krav Maga. I spend most of our sessions sprawled out flat on my back on the mat, trying to catch my breath. I have improved in nine months. I think I could successfully defend myself against a scrawny person.
We got straight to work. As usual Moshe started me with punching the heavy bag to warm up, then we moved to a sparring dummy, then I got the pleasure of having Skeet throw me around.
Jab, jab, jab, cross. Other side jab, jab, jab, cross. While my body tried to settle its grudge with the heavy bag my mind turned to Jack, who was still across the gym working out. I could feel him watching, but he said nothing. Nine months ago after we beat Pheares, Jack was my constant companion. We talked almost every day. Now we had an awkward space inside that words couldn’t fill. Jack had been in the military and now he was in the FBI. He was trained to move past traumatic experiences. I was struggling. Seeing him moving forward with his life when I was stuck in the past made me feel weak. I hate that feeling. It had been almost a month since we last spoke. Just seeing Jack across the gym, so confident and sure of himself caused my stomach to twist. But my feelings for him were torn. Despite our history and the difficult memories, I trusted him completely. Saving each other’s lives will bond people in a special way, I suppose.
Finished with the heavy bag I moved to the sparing dummy. I ran through my basic strikes and defenses, strikes to the throat and eyes. Elbow strikes. Once Moshe was satisfied that I hadn’t forgotten any of the basic moves he directed me over to the mats. As I walked over my eyes locked with Jack’s. We gave each other a little smile and nod in greeting.
Jack is one of the most attractive men I have ever seen, although I wouldn’t exactly call him handsome – he’s too rough to be called anything as simple as handsome. Over six feet tall with dark hair and eyes, he’s strong and dangerous, in the way of someone who uses his muscles every day. I know from experience that his broad shoulders are a great place to rest your head. He protected me, saved me from Pheares. But then I saved him first, so I guess we‘re even.
Standing there in the gym he looked at home in a white tank top and black sweat pants. Having seen him in his FBI finest I can attest that he looks just as nice in a suit. I guess he just looks good whatever he might be wearing.
Once at the sparing mat I got ready to square off with Skeet. Skeet is a little under six feet tall with the long, lean muscles of a runner. He has brown hair, not dark or light, just a normal medium brown, that is always hanging in his eyes, like he’s constantly overdue for a haircut. He also sports a face covered with constant scruff that isn’t full enough to be a real beard, more like messy stubble. He looks unkempt and dangerous, but has surprisingly gentle blue eyes. I have never seen him in any shirt other than a tank top. I believe he was in the military, although he has said nothing to confirm this to me. It was mostly based on his numerous tattoos.
I put on sparing gloves, a helmet, and shin guards. I stood with my right foot forward, both arms up and ready. Skeet squared off across from me, and Moshe watched from his position at the side of the mat.
We started with grabs and holds defense. Skeet grabbed me from behind, then from in front, or by the wrist. I twisted, chopped, punched, and kicked exactly how Moshe taught me. I managed to drop free from Skeet’s grasp with each move. I was definitely improving. The first time we did this I froze. Skeet was extra careful with me for a while, but now we grapple and fight with no holds barred. By the time I ran through the moves enough times that Moshe was happy with my progress, I was covered in sweat and I could feel some new bruises forming. I couldn’t help but notice Skeet was sweating and out of breath as well. I grinned.
Next, Moshe wanted me to work on getting up from the ground after someone had taken me down, like Lawrence Pheares did when he attacked me. This was my biggest emotional struggle. I still froze even though it was just a training exercise with Moshe and Skeet, men I trusted. The murderous monster still lived vivid and terrifying in my mind.
I lay down on the mat, Skeet stood above me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jack watching.
“Ground defense position,” Moshe’s tone was firm. He expects me to move immediately when he speaks with that much authority.
I quickly brought my head and shoulders up off the mat. My hands came up in front of my face in a defensive position to protect myself. My knees bent. The left foot stayed anchored on the floor while my right knee bent up toward my chest, with my foot flexed and ready to kick.
At first Moshe just told Skeet to circle me while changing directions sporadically. In this position I could use my anchor foot to spin my body on the mat so that I was always facing my attacker with my kicking foot. When you’re defending yourself the worst position to be in is lying on the ground. The entire point of this particular exercise was to think fast, defend myself effectively, and get up as quickly as possible. So after Moshe was satisfied that I could follow my attacker while lying on the ground, he had me practice getting up.
I fired my right foot out, planted my left foot and my right hand, lifted my hips and swung my right foot back. With both feet planted I shot to my feet and into position. Again and again. Kick, plant, lift, swing, and stand as fast as I could. I repeated the sequence until Moshe was satisfied I could perform the movement in my sleep.
Then he had Skeet actually attack me. He was fast. I had to kick hard to give me time to get up. Most of the time he was too fast. I didn’t get enough time or the space to act. I was still in motion, fumbling for a defensive maneuver. But monsters don’t wait until you are ready. You have to be faster, and kick harder, than the monsters. That was my lesson. When we stopped for the day, Moshe gave me a grunt, “we’ll work on it next time.” Skeet gave me a smile. For him, it was practically a soliloquy.
After gathering my things and saying goodbye to Moshe and Skeet, I left the gym. Jack fell into step beside me.
“You’re getting pretty good.”
“Thanks. I still have a way to go.”
Jack stopped me with a hand to my arm. His touch was warm and strong. His dark eyes were oddly intense. “It’s good to see you coming here to train.” His deep voice was comforting and familiar. “It’s really good to see you, Char.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was still raw from the dream this morning.
Jack smiled, the look still in his eyes, “I’ll see you around. Happy New Year.”
Oh yeah, New Year’s. Today was December 31. It was the first time I had thought of that all day. New Year’s didn’t mean much to me this year. I did not plan to make any resolutions, but I did have a party to go to.
“Thanks. Happy New Year to you, too.” His hand dropped from my arm leaving a cold spot felt even through my heavy coat. “Guess I’ll see you next year.”
“Let’s hope it’s a good one.”
I wholeheartedly agreed. Giving me one last smile, Jack turned and walked away.
As I got into my SUV I thought of all the things I wanted to say to Jack, things that I didn’t come close to verbalizing. I put the SUV into drive and headed home, with one more regret in my mind.
As I drove I called Kathy.
“Char, how are you?”
I never know how to answer that question anymore. “I’m okay, just leaving the gym. I just wanted to check what time I should stop by tonight.”
“Well, dinner will be around six-thirty or seven so most people are coming around then.”
“Okay, anything I can bring?”
Kathy reassured me that she had everything she needed. Under the words of our conversation I could hear the almost constant worry. She is good about it, all of my friends are, but when someone you love is struggling you can’t help but worry. I appreciate the attempt to stifle it anyway.
When I got home Max was anxious to see me. He goes almost everywhere with me, but taking him to the gym is a disaster. He tries to protect me from my sparring partner. Max was extremely protective after our ordeal. So when I got home from the gym he has to check me all out, making certain I am okay. He ran around me, sniffing my shoes and my coat.
“Hey Max, how’s it going?”
He cocked his head to the side and gave me a look like I was crazy. He didn’t know how right he was.
“Happy New Year, buddy. Guess what? You get to be my date for the party.”
He looked thrilled.
Since I had lost so much weight most of my clothes hang on me a little. I showered and dressed in a pair of jeans and bright red sweater, along with a cute pair of ballet flats. I put Max in his red Christmas sweater with the reindeer on the back. He hates it, but he sure is cute.
“You’ll be the life of the party, Max.”
He didn’t looked convinced. But he is easygoing enough to put up with wearing the sweater for a few hours. Even if he looked somewhat embarrassed.
We left home around six. At Kathy’s party I was surrounded by friends, family, and good food. For a few hours I could forget my fears.